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Disruptive defense leads Sparks to their first win of the year

L.A. beat the Chicago Sky 76-61 on Friday night.

Los Angeles Sparks v Chicago Sky Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Sparks spent all preseason stumping for their defense, stating that it would be the foundation of their season. And when their season opener rolled around two weeks ago, the Sparks showed why they held that belief, and why they were still far, far away from it being a reality.

They took a leap towards that reality on Friday night in a convincing 76-61 victory over the Chicago Sky.

Disruption has been the name of the game for the Sparks’ defense, but it hasn’t always led to good results. They forced a whopping 26 turnovers in their opening night loss to the Dallas Wings, but somehow managed to cede 94 points. It was a similar story in their second game, a blowout loss to the Las Vegas Aces.

Against Chicago, the Sparks were all over the court again on defense, deflecting passes, closing lanes, and forcing mistake after mistake. The result was a grand total of 27 turnovers ... only this time, the scoreboard reflected the fact.

While much of the improvement likely came from simply having more time to gel and improve, coach Derek Fisher made a change to his starting lineup, replacing versatile wing vet Brittney Sykes with rookie Arella Guirantes. That allowed Sykes — a pesky and energetic defender — to come off the bench with veteran center Amanda Zahui B., who made her Sparks debut after missing the first two games of the season with a back injury.

Fisher credited those two after the game, saying that the defensive improvement was largely due to “Brittney and Amanda really giving our second group a foundation. We were asking a lot out of [younger players]. There’s just a lot of inexperience in that unit ... we’ve done a decent job in the first quarter in our first few games, but just haven’t been able to sustain it.”

Sykes put that on display all night, as she recorded five steals, scored the bulk of her points in transition, and had three separate and-one opportunities.

And Zahui B. acted as commander from the back line, directing traffic and calling out actions to her perimeter teammates. Fisher seemed to joke after the game that Zahui B. had lost her voice on defense, but when the veteran center faced the media it was apparent that it wasn’t much of a joke.

Sykes has always taken pride in her defense, and admitted that it was bizarre to force so many turnovers in the first two games without it leading to good results, saying, “It was weird to know that we turned teams over but we didn’t get the points off the backend off that.” But the team “watched a lot of film on the good and the bad,” she said, and the results were evident.

Not only did the Sparks force so many turnovers, but they held Courtney Vandersloot and Diamond DeShields — the Sky’s go-to offensive players with Candace Parker and Allie Quigley sidelined — to a combined 4-for-13 shooting.

The offense was not quite as inspiring, but that’s to be expected. It was, however, the best performance of the year for L.A., and a highly diplomatic one at that. All 11 players scored, with no one pouring in more than Nneka Ogwumike’s 14.

The ball movement was much crisper than in their first two games, which helped lead to 9-for-19 shooting from distance.

They took the lead about halfway through the quarter and never relinquished it, outscoring Chicago in each of the first three quarters, and carrying an 18-point lead into the final frame.

Zahui B., who said she “had sparkles inside me instead of butterflies” in her debut, says it was apparent in the last week of practice that L.A. was turning a corner: “You can really tell in practice with the energy. It’s a different kind of focus. The leaders have done a great job communicating that we have to get better to win.”

They got better. They won. And now they run it back on Sunday.

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